First, a word from our sponsor: me! I miss doing weekly Mapping The Edge blog posts more than you know, but my current work and teaching schedules don’t allow the time for decent posts. Hopefully that will change soon. Here’s one I’ve been working on since my last post of almost a month ago.

In trying to de-stress, I took a walk while listening to random songs on my iPod. By the way, I’m convinced that playing songs in alphabetical order is more random than shuffle. My shuffle feature has never offered me “Acceptance,” by guitarist Pat Matheny, then “Acid Bath,” from my Scary Sounds and Sound Effects collection.

By the way, if you want your brainwaves scrambled in an interesting way, listen to chapters of multiple books played randomly, with each track a random chapter from a different book. I’d buy that book!

After alphabetically playing, “Adeste Fideles,” by Bing Crosby and Adrian Belew’s “Adidas in Heat,” I heard Geddy Lee sing “Available Light,” and Perry Como doing “Ava Maria”. After Dixie Dregs finished, “Bloodsucking Leeches,” Miles Davis began to play, “Blue in Green,” from his 1959 Kind of Blue recording.

I’m not exactly the biggest jazz fan, but I pay attention when multiple paths lead to the same destination. I often use quotes as part of my engineering/physics lectures, and I had just read a quote from Miles Davis about taking risks. He said, “If you are not making a mistake, it’s a mistake.”

On the surface, this quote sounds like an excuse for poor technique. It is about the opposite. Until Kind of Blue, most jazz, if not all, was well-structured, rehearsed, and played from a complete score. Even improvisational solos are mostly based around a known song structure. Freedom to explore musical boundaries usually means do so within a defined structure or number of measures, so the rest of the band can join up at some pre-arranged point.

Miles Davis gave his talented band members the task of creating a mood. They had rough ideas in the form of musical modal sketches, but little advance notice to figure it out. Miles himself decided what to do in a general sense only a few hours before recording. There were no chords, no measures and real structure. The musicians (a mix of different playing styles) were instructed to play until each had said what needed to be said. When it felt right, the next musician would say his piece musically, either to expand on or contradict what had been played before. Recordings were done on first takes.

Mistakes were made. At times you hear chairs creaking. Musicians almost step on each other. Sometimes, a musician reaches for a note but doesn’t quite seem to find it. All of the time you hear magic. Without structure, there’s a complexity and subtle flow that would not have existed otherwise. “Musical haze” comes from band members placed in cramped stairwells with recording microphones suspended several stories above, adding to the organic nature of the experience.

On “The Miles Davis Podcast” on iTunes, trumpeter Randy Brecker tells of an interview he heard Miles do once. The interviewer asked why Davis didn’t practice his tunes more and rehearse before recording and playing live. Miles gave another classic quote in response. In his raspy whisper-voice rich with the same atmosphere and haze created on Kind of Blue, Miles said, “You can’t rehearse the future.”

On the same podcast, Marcus Miller, bass clarinet player for Davis, said he and Miles worked on electronic musical arrangements with computerized drum machines in the mid-80s. They were on a quest for perfection of beat and pitch. They found it, but it was at the price of the humanity of the music. Even that was not considered a mistake. Miller said they would never have known otherwise.

Miller said when he and Miles played together, they only played the notes that mattered. They left the other notes alone. Musicians who played with Miles and those who saw him live talk about the magic of watching Miles search for the next note, not as an inexperienced or indecisive artist would, but the way a master painter decides that one more brush stroke is needed but not two. His band members talk of him repainting the color of a song’s mood by simply holding a note longer, or repeating the same note when the music doesn’t call for it.

Perfection has a way of extracting the soul of art, regardless of the type of art we make, or what experiments we do in Engineering Physics III. How many life-changing discoveries in physics were made by “mistake”? That reminds me – I need to prepare to teach another class. Heard any good quotes I can use?